By Turner Walston
They're here, back at the Final Four. Because of the way the 2016 season finished, the story of redemption has surrounded this team. But despite a core of returning players, this is in fact a different squad from a year ago, and there is work yet to do. It continues Saturday night against Oregon.
Beyond the Luke Maye heroics, the Joel Berry Ankle Watch 2017, the Justin Jackson ACC Player of the Year season, Kennedy Meeks has –somehow– quietly had the best season of his career. The Tar Heel senior big man had 17 boards last Sunday against Kentucky, each of them crucial to pushing Carolina toward Phoenix and the Final Four. And of course, a week prior, his tip-in follow against Arkansas pushed a one-point lead to three and helped complete a successful comeback.
Carolina has scorers in Jackson and Berry, and though he's the team's third-leading scorer on the season, the Tar Heels don't necessarily need Meeks to pour in points to be successful. In fact, he had just 12 points on seven total field goal attempts in two games combined in the South Regional last weekend. What they do need out of Meeks is work on the boards. When he has ten or more rebounds, the Tar Heels are 14-2. When he both scores and rebounds in double figures, the team is 11-1, their only loss the one to Duke in the ACC Tournament.
But Kennedy Meeks will have his hands full Saturday night against Oregon. Standing across from him will be junior forward Jordan Bell, the Ducks' leading rebounder and third-leading scorer was a monster in the Midwest Regional semifinal against Kansas, when he scored 11 points, hauled in 13 rebounds, had an Oregon NCAA Tournament record eight blocks and handed out four assists. For his efforts, Bell was named the Regional's Most Outstanding Player. He was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is a member of Sports Illustrated All-Glue Team. While Carolina's starting five is about two inches taller, on average, than the Ducks', Jordan Bell is a load underneath and a player that must be accounted for.
With Carolina's post talent and depth, the Tar Heels have looked to establish the inside game early in games this season. Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are both capable scorers and rebounders, as is Tony Bradley, and Maye is capable of playing both inside and out. Getting things started in the post opens up the game for Jackson and Berry on the perimeter, and creates driving lanes for those two and Theo Pinson. But Bell is going to make that difficult. He has the ability to not only block shots, but alter them and lower the likelihood of success even for cleaner looks.
"I think the main thing is to get him off the block early, and work around him at the post," Meeks said of Bell. "And definitely boxing him out on every play. I think as a team we have to do a great job collectively with rebounding. Our bigs just have to demand the ball. If we do all these things, we'll be fine."
It's not as though Bell has an easy task before him in Meeks, and he knows it. Meeks has an inch and 35 pounds on Bell, and the Charlotte native has reshaped his body over the years, gained strength and endurance and learned how to use his size to his advantage. "He's a good post player. Very big," Bell said of Meeks. "He's going to be very tough as far as keeping him of the boards and stopping them as a whole. But I think it's going to come down to the whole team, rebounding. I don't think anybody on our team is going to just dedicate that one responsibility to just me. I think everybody is going to have to crack down on their bigs and really just get in there, help out with the rebounding."
That will be to the Tar Heels' advantage, however. In addition to the size difference, Carolina boasts a quality post depth that the Ducks can't match. Oregon center Chris Boucher was lost for the season with a left knee injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. At 6'11, Kavell Bigby-Williams has seen limited action but is Oregon's best bench option in the post. Meanwhile, Carolina has Bradley at 6'11 and Maye at 6'8 capable of coming in and fighting for possession down low.
Hicks, who had eight total fouls and one total rebound last weekend, will be tested by Oregon's Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, a 6'8 forward who is more than capable of stepping back behind the arc. Oregon plays three guards, so Hicks will have to stay out of foul trouble defending him.
And the Tar Heel guards will have to deal with 'Mr. March' Tyler Dorsey, who has scored 20 or more points in seven straight games and hit six threes against Kansas. All the more reason for Carolina to exploit the match-ups in the post.
"Our main objective is going to be bigs. We'll try to get the ball as deep as possible and get the easy shots and hope that [Bell] fouls us," Meeks said. "We'll have to use our pump fakes, because he's a shot blocker. I told our guards that when they drive, they have to know he's coming from the weak side, and that's where he gets most of his blocks. There's going to be someone open, we just have to look for them."
Jordan Bell plays with the energy worth of the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year and the Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player. "You've got to match it," Pinson said of Bell's energy. "If you don't match it, you're going to get torched. He plays at 100 percent the whole game. If you make him play at both ends, hopefully you can get him tired by the end of the game."
They'll have to try to do that, because Oregon has multiple weapons. Oregon is good. Everybody's good. It's the Final Four. Saturday's game comes down to match-ups, energy and experience. The Ducks have won 12 of their last 13 and they bring an excitement and history to Phoenix. Carolina brings the motivation of coming oh-so-close a year ago. And yet, there is still work to do before any chance of redemption.
"We're here for Oregon, and we don't look past that or anything," Jackson said. "We're focusing on Oregon, and I think the whole unfinished business, or revenge, I don't know how you can have revenge on a team that wasn't the person that took it from you. And so for us, we're just trying to focus on Oregon, and that's it."
The only game on the schedule is Saturday night's date with the Ducks. To play on Monday, the Tar Heels will have to answer the bell.